STEM subjects tend to intimidate, seeming inaccessible to the untrained eye. Dr Vanessa Camilleri, Dr Marie Briguglio, and Prof. Cristiana Sebu speak to Becky Catrin Jones about how they are challenging preconceptions by combining science and art at Science in the City, Malta’s national science festival.
It’s 2018. We live in a world where saliva samples sent out from the comfort of our own homes return to us with a sprawling outline of our ancestry and where some of the biggest social media influencers are robots. Despite this progress, utter the word ‘scientist’ and the outdated image of men in white lab coats still abound.
When advances in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) direct almost every aspect of life, why is it that so many still switch off the minute we mention science?
Researchers haven’t always had the best PR. In films and TV, science is often portrayed as a foreign language, gibberish to most. Real life is not always that much better, with some researchers needing to carry a jargon-busting dictionary around to translate what they study. To improve its reputation, we need a more creative approach that can break these stereotypes and bring science to the masses in a way that doesn’t send people running for the hills.
Science in the City (SitC), Malta’s science and arts festival, is the perfect opportunity for researchers at the University of Malta (UM) to bring their research to citizens in a way that doesn’t need subtitles.
Professor Cristiana Sebu (Department of Mathematics, UM) joined UM only three years ago, but has already made a firm mark. With a background in Applied Mathematics, she moved to the university as an Associate Professor, setting up a new course stream for undergraduate students in Biomathematics. Sebu’s interests lie in the practical applications of mathematics, particularly in biology, and in exploring how mathematics underpins essentially everything in life. ‘The links between mathematics and biology are strong,’ Sebu asserts. ‘We need to be able to make predictions and apply mathematical modelling to understand complex and intertwined biological systems such as signalling pathways in the body or ecosystems in the environment.’
That said, Sebu is still very aware that her love for mathematics is not often shared by the wider world. The word ‘mathematics’, however applied it might be, still strikes fear into the hearts of many. In an effort to counter this reaction and replace it with a more positive one, Sebu is joining the myriad of researchers at SitC and adding music to the mix.
‘Maths provides the building blocks and the structure of music,’ says Sebu. ‘Debussy, Mozart, Beethoven, and so many more used a mathematical pattern known as the Fibonacci Series in their scores.’ The Fibonacci sequence is an infinite pattern of numbers where the next number is the sum of the two previous ones, going from 1, to 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, where (1+1) = 2, (1+2) = 3, and so on. This sequence is closely related to what’s known as the Golden Ratio, an infinite number which can be found in so many examples throughout nature, from the composition of bee colonies to the shape of seashells and the patterns in sunflower seeds.
Debussy, Mozart, Beethoven, and so many more used a mathematical pattern known as the Fibonacci Series in their scores.
To highlight this elegance, Sebu has teamed up with jazz composer Diccon Cooper. The performance, entitled ‘Jazzing the Golden Ratio’, will feature presentations of the Golden Ratio in art, the environment, and the human body, accompanied by Fibonacci-inspired jazz music specially commissioned for the festival. Sebu herself will also be there, sharing her thoughts about the significance of this pattern in the world around us. ‘People see arts and science at odds, but the two are very much embedded in each other,’ Sebu states. ‘Hopefully we’ll be able to demonstrate the beauty of mathematics at Science in the City this year.’
The significance of this connection between arts and science is a notion shared by Dr Vanessa Camilleri (Faculty of ICT, UM). After working on a project combining Artificial Intelligence (AI) with behavioural studies at Coventry University, Camilleri found a niche research environment using immersive technology and design to influence our decisions and behaviours. Returning to the UM, she worked on a Virtual Reality (VR) headset allowing teachers to experience what it might be like for a child with autism in a classroom.
‘Unless you experience something, it’s very difficult to reach a deep level of empathy,’ Camilleri said of the idea behind the project. ‘We wanted to give [teachers] the opportunity to build new memories through VR, and help them understand the needs of the child in greater detail.’
For SitC this year, Camilleri is taking a different approach. The VR headsets are having the night off, and attendees will need nothing but their smartphones to see science brought to life in artistic form. Using Alternative Reality (AR) methods, she’s collaborating with artists Matthew Attard and Matthew Galea to bring a fourth Triton to the fountain for one night only through a project funded by Valletta 2018. By downloading the smartphone app, attendees will see the new fountain brought to life through their phones. In the build-up to the festival, the artists are using eye-motion tracking and heat mapping sensors on volunteers to see which bits of the current statue draw their attention. This is then translated into the final depiction, making the fourth Triton as eye-catching as the current three.
Lecturer Dr Marie Briguglio (Faculty of Economics, Management & Accountancy, UM) is also hoping to use art to bring her subject to life, albeit in a more sober manner. As a behavioural economist, Briguglio’s focus is on a population’s impact on environment and how we can police this. In particular, at SitC, she wishes to convey the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’—the notion that free or common assets such as public space or air are likely to be exploited by the masses due to sense of entitlement combined with lack of responsibility.
To do this, Briguglio recruited the expertise of Steve Bonello, a cartoonist with a political bent. ‘Working out how best to design environmental regulation underpins much of the research I am involved in. But it’s also very evident in many of the cartoons Steve draws,’ says Briguglio. ‘I soon realized that there was enough material to write a book.’ And so they did, combining the work of faculty with cartoons to produce the comic The Art of Polluting.
Home truths about how we personally damage the world we live in might not make for easy reading, but Briguglio hopes the fusion between arts and science will make this message easier to swallow. ‘It is intended to bring to light research on environmental pressures, status, and responses in a manner that is accessible and also fun.’ The book itself will be displayed as part of a larger instalment titled No Man’s Land, which will include a live action play, more detailed research, and even a free tree-planting stall.
Putting research on the main stage is no new concept to any of these three, and this year’s SitC is certainly not their first venture into science communication. The projects they’ve put forward have all stemmed from previous public engagement ideas. Camilleri worked with the same artists on an AR feature about Greek Mythology, and she regularly translates her research for mass media. A science communication event, Go For Research, which was spearheaded by the Faculty of Science and Directorate of Curriculum Management and aimed at the Junior Science Olympiads was where Sebu’s idea for highlighting the beauty of mathematics was born.
The passion for their subjects is infectious in all three researchers. Each one listed the prospect of inspiring their audience as their top goal for the festival. Shaking up science communication by presenting it in a way we wouldn’t expect, through musical maths, theatrical economics, and artistic AI, provides an opportunity for researchers and citizens alike to see science through a new lens. One where progress seems brighter and kinder.
Author: Becky Catrin Jones
A frontline fighter for Malta’s accession into the European Union and former Head of Representation of the European Commission office in Malta, Dr Joanna Drake speaks to Teodor Reljic about how she got where she is, and what keeps her going.
While it may have taken a few hard knocks of late, the European Union (EU) is still a cornerstone in the lives of the continent’s citizens. And with the rising tide of populism the world over, fuelled by values which are the polar opposite of the EU’s unity-in-diversity model and putting into question the sustainability of the EU, it becomes easy to forget about its advantages.
It also becomes easy to forget just how impassioned and hard-fought the road towards accession was for some countries—Malta included. For millennials, the EU referendum in 2003 was, in many ways, our first truly ‘political’ moment. Beyond the rote rhythms of party politics, the event gave us the feeling that something larger than us was happening. History was being shaped right in front of our eyes.
But as this moment ossifies into nostalgia for some, and others edge towards a rising euroscepticism, one person that holds steadfast to the EU and all that it stands for is Dr Joanna Drake.
Acquiring her Doctorate in Laws from the University of Malta in 1988 was the spark that paved the way for an eclectic career for Drake. She prefers to characterise it as ‘varied with lots of spice’, and it is one in which the EU has played a central part from early on.
‘Yes, throughout everything, there has been a major common thread—the European Union. I pride myself in having such a powerful and inspiring reference point in my career. It has opened so many doors, and it keeps on being enticing in the challenges it presents,’ Drake says.
It has been a journey with many rungs and steps along the way… all of which Drake diligently and patiently takes the time to enumerate during our conversation.
In 1990, Drake’s world transitioned from the academic to the professional. She joined Malta’s first-ever professional team at the Malta Foreign Office, which was charged with preparing Malta’s EU membership application —a seed that would of course bear its most significant fruit just over a decade later.
Another significant step forward came five years later, when Drake took up teaching at her alma mater for a period that would last from 1994 to 2002. The position was no small feat. It meant that, at the relatively tender age of 30, Drake was lecturing in the Department of European and Comparative Law (Faculty of Laws) at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.
‘I was humbled to be teaching EU law to many of Malta’s preeminent lawyers, judges, magistrates, journalists, researchers, and politicians, including those who went on to become prime ministers and Presidents of the Republic,’ Drake reminisces, adding how her experience also dovetailed into the private sector. This part of her career overlapped with the ‘EU Moment’, as Drake served as Head of Legal and Regulatory Department for Vodafone Malta Limited from 2000 to 2005, during a stretch of time she describes as being a ‘very challenging period of transition for Malta’s telecommunications sector’.
Juggling so many high-profile, high-responsibility jobs was a big challenge for Drake, especially considering the social expectations on women. But she is quick to point out that all of that has its own silver lining. ‘Being a woman from a non-privileged background and facing tough competition, and even betrayals, including by those whom you had loved and respected, all go towards galvanising your resilience and bringing out the best in you while allowing you to grow.’
Despite such hardships, Drake has not been stopped from living a fulfilling life. ‘Of course, during this period, my private life did not stand still: I was also bringing up my two adorable kids, with whom I have been blessed and who continue to enrich my life every day…’
For millennials, the EU referendum in 2003 was, in many ways, our first truly ‘political’ moment.
Drake’s value of human rights and justice have given her career a crucial focus point, which would reach its critical point come 2003. Serving as the Chair of the YES referendum campaign, whose Maltese-language rallying call ‘Moviment IVA Malta fl-Ewropa’ is bound to stir memories in all those who experienced it, Drake remains unequivocal about the importance of this position for her.
‘My direct and visible political involvement in persuading the Maltese voters to vote YES in the EU referendum of March 2003 is something I remain immensely proud of. Standing up to be counted is always something that resonates deeply with me, and I would say that my involvement with the referendum was an ideal example of all that.’
Malta’s successful entry into the EU led to another key stepping stone in Drake’s career. In 2005 she took on the role of the Head of Representation of the European Commission office in Malta. She was then promoted to Director of Entrepreneurship and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) as well as deputy SME Envoy. She now serves as Deputy Director General in the Directorate-General (DG) Environment in Brussels.
As deputy SME Envoy, she was directly involved in shaping EU policy and helping SMEs face contemporary challenges, like the rise of industries such as Airbnb and UBER. This work yielded positive results in her previous posting as Director of SMEs and Entrepreneurship at DG GROW, where she represented the Commission in high-level dialogues and negotiations in China, US, Tunisia, Abu Dhabi and most EU member states.
It was also a post that allowed her to deliver presentations at numerous major events, cementing a career built on both practicality and advocacy.
The University of Life
With such an impressive CV in hand, I wanted to find out what drove Drake to such success. And it turns out that the University of Malta helped lay the groundwork of some good habits for her.
‘I’ve learnt plenty of lessons along the way, and I keep discovering new ones all the time! But I would certainly highlight the following: passion helps you achieve your goals. Keep investing in knowledge and real friendships. Networking is key. Keep it simple. Reach out, always. Stay humble. Don’t shy away from inspiring others. Take every opportunity to grow as a person, and in your conscience,’ Drake emphasised, adding that: ‘These are some of the stimulants that make my getting up in the morning and going off to work so much more worth it.’
Building your career is about adding your personal value to what you have learned and churned out at university. If those ingredients are in place, a true professional may very well be born.
And what about the new generation of graduates or to-be graduates? Students which, we should point out, have reaped the benefits of EU accession and all that that implies? Drake’s advice to any who dream of following a similarly heady and rewarding path is quite simple, though it requires both commitment and passion. ‘Keep an open mind as to how and where you could deploy your newly learned skills,’ Drake says—a reminder that self-knowledge and self-awareness truly go a long way.
In fact, Drake is keen to stress that a career—as opposed to a one-off and possibly dead-end job—is something that requires the full implementation of your personality and the gravitational pull of your most deeply held passions.
‘So in this way, building your career is about adding your personal value to what you have learned and churned out at university. If those ingredients are in place, a true professional may very well be born. Think about this when preparing for your next interview.’
Her parting-shot of advice is, however, far more to the point, but it resonates all the same: ‘Remember to just enjoy the journey! It’s loads of fun.’
Author: Teodor Reljic